Thom Nickels

It’s when one or more people pull up roots and decide to see a part of the country. A road trip can be a vacation or a permanent move to a new location but generally it always entails traveling by car or bus. Sometimes it can be done by hitchhiking.

Taking a road trip is great way to see “the guts” of America. It gives you a sense of the nation’s topography as well as a sense of the people who live there, something that’s impossible to do with travel. A good road trip also helps you to understand differences in the world. In that sense they are a form of education, especially hitchhiking. Road trips need not be expensive, either, although they were certainly a lot cheaper in the 1970s when hitchhiking on America’s highways was a very common sight.

When I was in western Colorado recently and driving through the mountains in a rental car, I was shocked to see that hitchhiking was still alive and well in the west. It made me happy to see that the men of the west were not like their eastern counterparts: insular, overly cautious and paranoid about meeting strangers (“I might meet a serial killer,” etc.)    

Hitchhiking, of course, is pretty much of a male thing. It was the same in the 1970s when I used to hitchhike although occasionally then one saw male and female hitchhikers (couples) or two males together. Picking up two hitchhikers at once went against common sense, but giving a lift to a single hitchhiker was very common. Women, generally, never picked up hitchhikers, nor did families in station wagons.

While driving through a number of small Colorado towns, I spotted guys with knapsacks standing on the side of the road holding signs with the names of different cities spelled out. Some held no signs but just used their thumb.  Seeing this was a revelation because hitchhiking has all but disappeared on the east coast.     

There was a time when you couldn’t drive down Lancaster Pike on Philadelphia’s Main Line without seeing a string of people with their thumbs out. There were hippies, men on leave from the military or just Main Line residents trying to get from one town to the other. Driving my mother’s blue Mustang in those days, I felt no fear picking up these road travelers and giving them a lift. Talking to these guys was a wonderful way to collect stories. My experiences both picking up hitchhikers and being on the other end were always safe and pleasant, too. I was never robbed and the Mustang was never high jacked.  

It helped that I was also an avid hitchhiker and knew the poetry of the road.

For an entire summer I hitched a ride to and from work on Lancaster Avenue, going from Paoli to Frazer in the morning to work at a local lumber mill. I did the same thing going home at night. There was never any question of not being able to obtain a ride. Somebody always stopped for me. Usually the drivers that give me lifts were men, but there were a few women, like the waitress who stopped for me and insisted that I stop at her house and meet her children. (I got the sense that she was looking for a husband or a date, although I had other ideas.)  Sometimes there were always surprises when hitchhiking. One time I got into a car only to hear the driver say, “We are going straight to Hell.” As I felt the blood drain from my face, the driver turned to me and laughed. “Only joking,” he said.  

Of course, hitching a ride every day along the same route, you become a familiar “safe” face to regular drivers so sometimes two rides would stop for me at once and I’d have to choose which one to accept. As a shy boy, these no longer- than- fifteen minute rides forced me to communicate and hold conversations with strangers until I felt comfortable enough to initiate conversations on my own. For me, hitchhiking was a life education.

Put a boy on the road with a knapsack and tell him to hitchhike from one town to the next and that boy will come away with a superb life education. In the 1970s I heard stories from truck drivers about unfaithful wives, criminal children, ghosts and more.   

My bohemian dream in those days was to hitchhike across country, from Philadelphia to LA or San Francisco. Many guys were hitchhiking across country then. This rite of passage was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the poet Arthur Rimbaud’s dictum that the artist must experience “everything.” Of course, try telling that to today’s millennial generation of young guys, with their faces stuck in their phones and their lack of ease with strangers (even when it comes to eye contact).

I decided against seeing the USA via hitchhiking because at heart I think I finally accepted the fact that I wasn’t that adventurous. I was adventurous to a point but being lost somewhere out in the mid-West didn’t seem that appealing to me. Raised in the suburbs, I had too much affection for showers and soap, so the idea of going without a bath for days didn’t smell good to me.

In lieu of my cowardice (I did feel ashamed of myself that I couldn’t muster up the courage to hitchhike 3,000 miles), I did the next best thing and bought a cross country Greyhound ticket, but even this was challenging. While I got to see the USA—Utah’s Great Salt Flats, the Rocky Mountains and the vast desert in Nevada—sleeping in a Greyhound was challenging.   

Even so, an education in “roughing it is a very valuable education indeed.

Years before my sister Carolyn’s death last year, I saw Carolyn and her boyfriend off for their cross-country RV road trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

The RV they rented was a house on wheels, complete with a spacious double bed, shower, kitchen, sofa, TV, and more. The impetus for the trip was a job transfer, as Carolyn was told, “You either get laid off or we can transfer you to LA.” Carolyn, always the adventurer, welcomed the life change. She was getting tired of east coat cold and Philadelphia crime. The idea of palm tree lined sidewalks seemed very seductive to her, although in time, as she would see Los Angeles fall apart, she would come to partially regret the move.

Carolyn’s new LA apartment included a spacious yard. Her old apartment in Roxborough had a nice view of Fairmount Park but in LA she had the ocean. And no more dreary east coast city winters.  

Lucky for her, Carolyn’s company paid for the cross country odyssey, even for the RV rental. Their furniture and even their two cars were shipped out in advance, which meant that they would only take personal items and the two pets, Bella, the dog, and Sweet Pea, the finicky cat. Sweet Pea is not a lap cat but one of those hide-and-seek cats, often afraid of its own shadow. Try to take Sweet Pea into your arms for a cozy coupling and you’ll probably wind up with a scratch. Bella, on the other hand, is an old dog with arthritis. She has a bobbed tail (which makes her look weird from behind) and a high maintenance whiney personality. I think she was born with a worried look on her face.  

Carolyn and her boyfriend planned to take a southern route and then head west gradually so as to avoid snow and ice. The countdown to their planned travel day came with a lot of fanfare. For a short time they even entertained naming their trek but everyone kept coming up with variations of Westward Ho and that seemed too much like a cliché.

Naturally, helping my sister pack her personal items on the RV put me in mind of my own trips out West.

I thought of my Greyhound bus trips, especially the return ride from San Francisco to Philadelphia, when I shared seats with Mormon missionaries and several Native American women carrying crying babies.

I thought about the long nights with the bus moving through small western towns or racing across the plains of Kansas and stopping at East of Eden style towns with only a gas station, a diner or maybe a strange looking motel.

Today, when I wait for buses on city streets, the romance of the road sometimes comes back to haunt me: I imagine myself at 20, thumb out, waiting for a car to pull up alongside me.  

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